Thursday, November 24, 2005

Online Avatars

OK, since my current issue has been on the stands for over a week, I can safely write about an assignment I went for some time back. After I returned from Diwali/Gambling break to Delhi I generally found myself unemployed and I was just crusing through my offensively large Outlook Inbox and found my mail that caught my eye - it was PR spiel but still I figured that there was something in this. It spoke about a company called Level Up Games, which is a Games Publisher based out of Lokhandwalla. Nothing terribly unique in that, there have a been a million and one stories about gaming in India, even though all but one or two are nowhere close to the plot. However, Level Up seemed interesting because it publishes a game called Ragnarok. Now, Ragnarok is a MMORPG - which is short for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game - a game where you play in a virtual world full of other socially challenged (or real-world challenged?) souls. Now, I am what you would call a 'reformed' gamer - there was a point in my life when I spent 16 hours a day gaming - today I hardly play any games - mainly because I'm holding out for a Playstation 3 and I would rather watch a movie.
Back to the point, recently I read quite a few news articles about a couple of deaths among players of MMORPG's in China, heck they even had an online funeral for a girl who died. The game involved, World of Warcraft by Blizzard Games (WoW for short) is undoubtedly the biggest games release of the past 12 months - for gods sake there are 3.5 million players of the game, in China alone, according to one story I read. People pay a few dollars every month for the privilege of playing the game, and to be honest, while going through the game (admittedly I did not play it) I have no idea why millions of people spend hours every day of their lives in the WoW world. So, Level-Up and their boss Venkat Mallik (who calls himself 'Soothsayer ' on his card incidentally) believe that there is a mssive market opportunity for MMORPG's in India, so they've launched Ragnarok India - with Indian servers and believe you me, having servers within the country helps tremendously with connectivity.
These guys have also tied up with Reliance Infocomm and Sify, so that their game is pre-installed on most computers in cybercafes run by these guys. For the time being the game is free to play and if you want to play it at home you can get a CD for a 100 clams from their website. However, don't even try playing this game with a dial-up.
Now, my publication didn't want a straight-up clean story, they wanted me to play the game and then go meet some other players. So I spent two entire days at work (first figuring out why the heck the game wouldn't install, then playing) playing in the world of Rune Midgard - the mystical world of Ragnarok. Ragnarok, as my Exec Ed pointed out is as term widely used in Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics and the term itself comes from Norse myth and could mean either the day of reckoning or the end of the world, depending on the way you look at it. Maybe a better understanding would be the Hindu Kalyug.
The game itself is hardly as doomy and gloomy as the Hellboy comics, has almost no sexual content, unless you want to flirt-chat with a female character (and even then the Game Managers seem to be inspired by recent events in Tamil Nadu and are always on the prowl) and almost no violence. There are specific windows in the game where you can attack and kill each other (only to be reborn, albeit with a less power). You can also trade stuff online, you have a fictional currency called Zeny with which you can buy stuff, though unlike my favourite Grand Theft Auto series of games, you can't buy sex sadly! Honestly, for someone like me used to shoot 'em up games like Halo, Unreal Tournament or one-on-one fighting titles such as Soul Calibur and the entire NFS racing series (as well as anything else by EA), I got rather bored.
The Level Up guys told me that they had two servers - each server can support upto 15000 players at once - going by average log-in times and numbers that flashed on my screen, I would say that Ragnarok would have around 15-20,000 registered players in India. Which though nowhere near WoW's numbers isn't bad for a game that has hardly publicised itself.
But, the biggest surprise was still to come.
As I said earlier there are specific windows where you can attack each other - rather attack another team or guild as it is called in the game. These 'guilds' hold on to castles located at different parts of the map and every Wednesday and Saturday between 1800-2000 they can be breached if you attack. So I was told to go to the Reliance Web World on Linking Road and see the action. And I was taken aback. I always knew gaming was big among India's upper middle class pre-teens and teens. I have roughly estimated, through talking to dealers in Palika Bazaar that there are over 25,000 fourth-generation (PS2, XBox) consoles in India (if not more) and that the first XBox 360's will arrive at places like Palika and Heera Panna for around Rs 25k a pop around the middle of December. And PC gaming is huge in the country - the Microsoft organised Halo competition in India in 2004 had over 10,000 entries in 12 cities.
At this WebWorld I saw 15 kids playing Ragnarok and they were screaming and shouting. I couldn't exactly imagine myselg doing the down and dirty, a large unshaven individual screaming and shouting would raise quite a few eyebrows. But I did ask these kids some questions. These 15 kids provide that Webworld with at least 30,000 bucks worth of surfing business every month. They play like maniacs, skipping school and college. One attendant over there told me that they hardly leave. These people were nuts - and I suddenly realised that even though Ragnarok only has 25,000 odd players, India is going to become the next big MMORPG market.
Footnote : Weirdly enough, when Level-Up showed me footage of people who said how the game had changed their lives, almost all of them pointed out how much their social skills had improved. Heck, I discovered that they are launching a 'Marriage' patch on the game soon. I wouldn't make genralistic statements such as these people looked 'dorky' or 'geeky' but they certainly did need a tool to help their real-life social skills. Its surprising how many products are marketed in India claiming to make you more 'confident', I think Ragnarok can work. The only problem is that it can also suck you in.
If you want to try a MMORPG for free you can also check out this new game which I believe is a huge hit in the US. Its less of a game more of a mix between 'The Sims' meets 'WoW' - SecondLife.
EDIT : Virtual lives are one thing, but now I'm hearing of online virtual sex. I discovered this via Fleshbot. It is a rather interesting site - MMOrgy.
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shyam said...

During the old indiatimes days I'd tried convincing the gods there to get into gaming on two fronts, 1) set up servers with subs and 2) tie up with cyber cafes. It never got anywhere and pretty much died an instant death. Later someone once told me that I could get the seed capital to set up such a company, but I declined since I am awful with money. Sigh, someone is going to make it rich with this in India one of these days.

I've gone old school these days and rediscovering the joys of playing Serious Sam I and II on the computer after having finished GTA III, GTA LC, GTA VC and HL2. but it is not so tempting anymore, phew!

Bonatellis said...

isn't this a complete giveaway !!!!

K said...

Bonatellis : Not particularly ;-) And I did find the entire thing quite remarkable.
Codey : I'm off games for the time being - don't own a console - the office computer sucks - but give me a PS2 or an XBox and I'll be back at it in a jiffy.

Tony said...

hey K, same to same template...

I was reading a nice nice article on this MMORPGs on Fortune, apparently some people have quit their day jobs to earn their living by trading MMORPG assets like weapons. One German lady earn by renting out real estate. She apparently is a Big name on online Real estate Here, hope you don't get tempted lol...

anthony said...

Why don't you remove that Nav bar??

Bonatellis said...

K: U may not be fully aware how these days companies track what people are saying about them ... particularly one whose entire customer community resides on the Net ...
but then u might say "do i give a damn" :-)

K said...

Nothing particularly offensive over here. I'm not questioning the logic of their business plan, I think it could work, depends on the service they offer their customers - and are kids (their core demographic of 10-15 year old males) prepared to pay Rs 300 or so a month to play the game, maybe. Maybe Level-Up could become a huge company in five years time, after all what was Airtel ten years ago?
Now what is a hair-brained business plan is that of Go Air.

Bonatellis said...

no no ... u didnt get my point at all ... all i am saying is that u are compromising your identity ... if u want to keep it a closely-guarded secret, that is :)

livinghigh said...

the game sounds... murderous. but then u already knew i was an anti tech geek, na?
best line have read so far:

"pornography will fuel progress." now why cudnt my mum see it dat way, during my wonder years? ;-)

K said...

Bona : I'll have to reveal myself sooner or later - so its OK.
Livinghigh : Pornography is a massive driver for technology. Soon after the DPS MMS scandal broke, I spoke to a senior guy at Hutch about this and he told me that the number of GPRS subscribers had shot up from 30,000 to 300,000 in a month. QED in my eyes!